I haven’t written a letter-blog for a while. Now feels like a good time. Usual disclaimer applies.
As I think you’ve gathered, I was brought up with an interest in current affairs and politics, and with a certain sort of worldview. The fact a lot of people where I grew up didn’t share said worldview (I grew up in Bucks – mine and theirs are probably inferable enough from that…) only made me cling to it more doggedly and feel that those who thought differently were attacking me. At times, a difference of opinion felt like being hit in the stomach and if I found out someone had a view I was brought up not to agree with I’d agonise over whether we could still be friends. I was told that being too strident and politically-engaged could intimidate people. Before I went to university (in this state of mind…) an older alumnus gently advised me that if I toned down the social-justice-warrior thing I might find it a bit easier to make friends.
I did gradually tone it down when I got there – probably helped by Durham being insular and fairly politically-apathetic – but most of the friends I made had broadly the same instincts as me, except for a couple of Tory blokes, one of whom’s distinguishing feature was that he once did a cracking dinnertime impression of the Reverend Ian Paisley seducing Tony Blair (don’t ask…). We dealt with one another mainly by trying to seem not to take ourselves too seriously, and I half-convinced myself his opinions were the result of internal damage from the amount of alcohol and Red Bull he put away. Towards the end of my final year (after a dismal failed fling with the treasurer of Durham Socialist Students…yes, I know…) I fleetingly wondered if we could sleep together out of curiosity, but then decided it would be too awkward because, well, because being 22 is too awkward, and he had a huge crush on another girl anyway.
Also, I was worried he’d reprise his Ian Paisley/Tony Blair skit in the middle and put me off sex for the rest of my life.
After university and journalism school I mooched around on the periphery of the online community of bit-lefty, bit-caustic, bit-awkward young women hoping for a New Statesman byline (I’ve cracked the Guardian, Times and Telegraph but still not the NS. The NS just doesn’t fancy me…). Before I’d spoken to you, I’d heard from someone that, frankly, you were a bit of a twat (that same person may well have said similarly unflattering things to you about me…). But when we made contact and met, you were smart, funny, interested and interesting. For whatever reason, you opened up, and didn’t behave as though you were too big to talk to me. Soon we found a common ground we could never have imagined. The few slivers of twattery that broke through looked like the last remnants of an era you’d moved away from. It was as if a profound switch was suddenly happening in my head. For one of a handful of times in my life, I was able to look across at someone and feel our similarities and mutual vulnerabilities mattered more than our likely differences. I recognised this approach was probably a positive way forward, because – gasp – looking for reasons to like people is generally a healthier approach to life than looking for reasons to get cross with them.
A couple of other things occurred around the same time to add to that recognition. One, sections of the internet social justice fraternity gradually started doing my head in: those who never had the benefit of a Gentle Word like I did at 18, and have ended up so full of antagonistic rage they’re incapable of getting on with anybody, even people broadly of the same stripe (the 25-year-olds from Northampton who write everything in teen Americanisms and spend more time reading about marginalised groups than talking to any are especially delightful….). Secondly, I lost a close friend. As dearly as I loved him, at times he could be quite a stick in the mud who would do things like block people summarily on social media for saying or liking anything he didn’t like. I sensed this stubbornness probably didn’t help his overall mental state and resolved to try to live the rest of my life with that in mind.
But there are problems. Oh, there are problems. Of course. There are reasons I shouldn’t like you far more fundamental than any to do with background or politics. On one hand I want to feel proud to have embraced the enemy, grown, matured and all that self-help caper, but at the same time my life would be ten times simpler if I could just hate you. Or at least forget you. Or at least, stop my brain from thinking liking you is some sort of virtue or test. It isn’t. It isn’t a real test because I don’t have to live or work with you, and if you grate on me I can just turn away rolling my eyes. I am not endlessly forced to listen to you rant emptily at some honcho in the news who you hate because of something he did fifteen years ago which I have no idea about because fifteen years ago I was in a Um Bongo-scented classroom learning about wars and algebra, surrounded by girls who preferred Billie to Tori Amos (those too old or young to remember Billie Piper as a pop star, you are fortunate souls; acting really was the better choice…). Why, for God’s sake, why did my Great Adult Epiphany About Life have to come from you and not someone who can be something tangible and real instead of the usual residual nonsense, when I’ve already had thirteen years of nonsense, and enough guilt to start my own religion? (thanks, Tori)
I don’t know what it is about you but you’re still far too easy to warm to. I’ve tried to think of what it would take to make me hate you and I can’t, or I can, but then think it’s not reason enough to outweigh the goodness. Whenever you tip your hat to someone I wouldn’t choose to share the earth with let alone endorse in public, I just end up thinking back to those moments of empathy and feeling like I’d forgive you anything. Yes, you’re a weirdo with an erratic brain-to-mouth filter but it takes one to know one. In our own ways, we’re two impossibly-stubborn people who’ve edged slightly closer to the middle ground and bumped into each other there…
I just wish it had been under different circumstances…
And now you’re indirectly responsible for putting a Billie Piper single into my head for the first time this century and I can’t even hate you for that….
“Blue isn’t red. Everybody knows this. And I wonder, when will I learn? Guess I was in deeper than I thought I was…” Tori Amos, ‘Strange‘